July 8, 1923: President Harding’s memorable, regrettable Alaska vacation

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On this day in 1923, President Warren G. Harding became the first sitting president to visit Alaska. He died just a few weeks later.

Maybe President Harding would remember the ill-fated trip as her idea if he were still around. The expedition was part of a broader tour of the Western states in advance of his planned re-election bid, but the trip to the Last Frontier apparently came at the wish of his wife, Florence.

During the visit, he fell ill and never recovered, eventually dying in San Francisco at 58 years old. The cause of death is formally listed as a heart attack, but others believe he suffered shellfish poisoning from tainted crabs eaten on the return voyage. The New York Times reported:

NY Times: Warren Harding Death Front Page

Scenes in the Death Room

Reports of what happened in the sick room when the President’s sudden stroke came are still somewhat confused. According to Dr. Boone, Miss Ruth Powderly, Mrs. Harding’s nurse, who had made the Presidential tour for the purpose of being with her patient, was struck by a great improvement in the President’s appearance.

“Doesn’t he look fine?” she said, turning to Mrs. Harding.

Then the nurse turned back to look at the President to verify her comment. Mrs. Harding looked, too. They saw a shudder pass over the President’s frame. That marked the stroke that produced death.

Rumors began to fly about, each wilder than its predecessor, and all denied soon by official bulletins, which were issued as a dozen words, telling the news, or which had been rushed from the press too fast for more than a picture and the phrase “Harding dead” and circulated like wildfire through the downtown districts and even far out on the residential streets within a few minutes after the official bulletin announcing the death had been issued.

They brought a shock to crowds, which a few minutes before were sure that the city’s distinguished guest was well on the way to recovery and had started out to spend the evening at theaters, dances, or other amusements.

Another Version of Last Scene

From a friend who talked with Mrs. Harding and other members of the Presidential party the following version of the president’s death was obtained:

Mrs. Harding had been reading a newspaper article to her husband. She paused at the end of a paragraph. Miss Powderly, the nurse, remarked that the President was looking fine. The President liked the newspaper article.

“That’s good, go on,” the President said to Mrs. Harding. These were his last words. Before she could resume reading Mrs. Harding saw the shudder pass through his frame and saw her husband collapse.

General Sawyer was either in the room or just outside. He was at the President’s side at the first cry of alarm. The President according to this account died almost immediately after.

Mrs. Harding is calm. She said to friends of her party and relatives of the late President who gathered around her late this evening that she did not fully realize the blow that had come to her. We had a duty to perform, she said, and must bear up.

Mrs. Harding decided this evening that subject to changes that may be necessary by unforeseen circumstances that the body of the President should leave San Francisco at 7 o’clock tomorrow evening on the special train which carried the late President and his party from Washington to Tacoma and from Seattle to San Francisco in the return of the party from its cruise in Alaskan waters on the transport Henderson.

The body will be taken direct to Washington for a formal funeral and thence to Marion, Ohio, for final services.

The Rev. James S. West of the First Baptist Church of San Francisco hurried to the Palace Hotel when he heard of the President’s death. Knowing that both Mr. and Mrs. Harding were members of his faith, he went to the Presidential suite to offer religious consolation to Mrs. Harding if she desired. He was admitted to the Presidential suite when he gave his name and stated his errand.

via The New York Times report on Harding’s premature death and Calvin Coolidge’s ascention to the presidency